Journey Mental Health Center’s union says it’s fighting for strained caregivers and clients

The National Labor Relations Board is scheduled to take up a labor complaint against Journey in January.

The National Labor Relations Board is scheduled to take up a labor complaint against Journey in January. (Illustration by Shaysa Sidebottom.)

Journey Mental Health Center is a lifeline in the Madison area for thousands of vulnerable people who need access to mental health services. While Journey is a private non-profit, it also functions as a crucial part of the public safety net for mental health and has long depended on funding from Dane County, which in 2017, for instance, provided about 68 percent of Journey’s budget, according to that year’s annual report. The union that represents about 185 of Journey’s caregivers—including nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, and case managers—says it’s fighting for those vulnerable populations in an ongoing dispute over burnout, turnover, and paid time off.

“Journey isn’t seen as the place to end up,” says Daniel Shalit, a clinical case manager at Journey who is also involved with the union. “It’s seen as the place to either start your career for a little bit, and get enough training or enough supervised hours to go somewhere else. So you’ve either got a whole bunch of staff that are grandfathered in and have a longstanding history of working for Journey or a bunch of staff that have worked at Journey for less than five years and are looking for the next opportunity to go somewhere else.”


In a complaint that the National Labor Relations Board plans to take up in a January 13, 2020 hearing, the union (Council 32 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) charges that Journey CEO Lynn Brady and Clinical Team Manager Stacy Klein violated federal labor law by telling employees at different times this past spring that they could get access to better benefits if they dropped their support for the union. The NLRB issues a complaint when it “finds sufficient evidence to support the charge” and when the two parties involved can’t settle. It’s hardly guaranteed that a union filing a “charge,” in federal labor law parlance, can actually get the NLRB to issue a complaint against an employer: NLRB’s own data shows that in fiscal year 2018, it received 18,871 charges and issued only 1,088 complaints. (It’s more common for the parties to reach a voluntary settlement.) In other words, just under six percent of the disputes before the NLRB that year got to the stage Journey is at now.

The main sticking point is that the union says that Journey treats paid time off differently for its unionized and non-unionized employees. Under the current union contract, unionized clinical staff hired after February 2017 get no paid time off up front, and have to accrue it before they start using it: 120 hours (15 days) after one year of employment, four weeks after two years, five weeks after five years, and 6 weeks after nine years. (Unionized staff hired before February 2017 were allowed to keep a previous, better PTO package.) Non-union staff at Journey, the union says, start with five weeks of paid time off in year one, get it up front, and have an easier time carrying unused PTO over from one year to the next. The union recently conducted a survey of 67 employees, of whom several complained about not having enough PTO.

“The clinical staff that’s really in the trenches doing the face to face work, it would take them nine years to get the same benefits of time off that the janitors and the administrators get after one year,” says Russ Bennett, a nurse who has worked at Journey for about 34 years, and currently serves as president of the union.

Brady and a Journey spokesperson would not respond directly to questions about PTO disparities or answer specific questions about the ongoing dispute with the union. Job listings on Journey’s website, for both union and non-union positions, tout “Generous Paid Time Off!” without offering specifics. This has apparently become something of a bitter joke among Journey staff. 

“Journey has always used that ‘generous paid time off’ bit in their job postings for ages because historically they have had good PTO for everybody,” says Drew Thompson, a case manager at Journey’s Forward Solutions program and an outspoken union member. Now, Thompson says, new hires learn about their actual PTO options when deciding whether to take the job, and sometimes even during orientation, once they’ve already been hired. 

Bennett says benefits have shifted along with Journey’s work culture, and that Journey’s management and board have become less collaborative with rank-and-file employees. In the past, Bennett says, “They really wanted people that would dig in for the long haul. You get a certain experience and people with mental illness really appreciate consistency that they can work with people they know and trust. And so the model was always set up that we’re going to kind of go nuts on the vacation and give you six weeks of vacation, but we think that’ll keep you with the agency and you’ll be able to get the experience you only get through time.”

A group of Journey workers voted in 2012 to unionize with AFSCME. Organizers told the Wisconsin State Journal, in a 2012 piece about AFSCME’s efforts to organize more private workplaces in a brutal post-Act 10 world, that their main motivation for unionizing was to get Journey to cut down on its waiting list for services and reduce staff turnover, not pay or benefits. 

That said, paid time off has a pretty obvious connection to the well-being of Journey’s clients: This is cognitively and emotionally demanding work. Caregivers who are feeling burned out and stressed and unable to take care of their own mental health are hardly in the best place to take care of others’ mental health. They’re also going to inevitably look for other opportunities. When they leave, their patients will at best have to adapt to new caregivers. Anyone who’s gone through the process of trying to build rapport and trust with a new therapist can understand why that’s tough on people with scant resources and serious mental health problems. In Madison, even people with relatively good health insurance complain about the difficulty of getting access to therapy, and it’s more dire outside of Madison. In fact, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration deems much of Wisconsin a Mental Health Professional Shortage Area. Dane County itself doesn’t fell into that designation, and yet things here are still strained.

“I know that whenever we get to this level of detail of the contract, it can feel sort of petty in a way,” Bennett says of the dispute over PTO. “Like we’re arguing about this many days or that many days for the staff, but the bottom line is that it’s really eroded the entire agency’s effectiveness to provide services for people with mental illness. I mean, that is still our union’s bottom line, is that this is corrosive to the actual ability of the agency to do the work. It needs to retain people, to attract quality people.”

In all fairness, the fact that union members are getting less PTO than their non-unionized colleagues raises questions about how effective the union has really been in advocating for the contingent of Journey staff it represents, and about how hard Journey’s administration has pushed back. Thompson argues that Journey’s administration simply would not budge, and that to get to a deal on the current contract—which actually expired in February, but remains in effect in the absence of a new contract—the union had to compromise, holding onto more generous PTO for existing workers while accepting less PTO for new ones. Union members figured that once Journey administrators realized the downside of offering less PTO to new workers, they’d eventually relent and change the benefits structure anyway. 

“The union did not predict that Journey would be insistent on maintaining second-class benefits three years later,” Thompson says. “This disparity greatly affects hiring, impacts morale, creates hardship, etc., but Journey doesn’t seem to think it’s much of a problem.”

With the bad, Thompson says, came some good: The contract provides some protections against arbitrary firing, and at the very least it solidified the union’s role in the workplace.


The union also accuses Journey leadership of making other moves that aren’t necessarily illegal, like slow-walking negotiations for a new contract—not to mention its first and current contract, which took four years to negotiate—and advocating for decertification of the union. But what’s especially galling to union leaders and local AFSCME staff is the politically connected law firm Journey chose to aid in its dealings with the union: Michael Best and Friedrich. 

While the Michael Best and Friedrich PAC has given money to both Republican and Democratic candidates, it has especially deep ties to Wisconsin Republicans and their efforts to dismantle labor rights for public and private workers alike. Former Governor Scott Walker’s administration hired the firm to help the state out in lawsuits stemming from Act 10, the 2011 law Republicans slammed through the state Legislature to strip public-employee unions of nearly all their bargaining power. The firm has collaborated with right-wing business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on seminars about the “right-to-work” law Wisconsin enacted in 2015 as a follow-up blow to private-sector unions. Perhaps most notoriously, the firm helped Wisconsin Republicans draw egregiously gerrymandered new legislative maps in a secretive process. On top of it all, Michael Best and Friedrich’s current president is Reince Priebus, who helped usher in President Donald Trump’s administration, first as chair of the Republican National Committee and then as Trump’s first chief of staff.

For Shalit, the choice of firm signals that Journey’s higher-ups would rather get rid of the union than negotiate with it. CEO Lynn Brady claimed in August that because Journey was engaged in “active bargaining” with the union, she couldn’t answer specific questions about the labor dispute, but stated: “Journey management is bargaining in good faith with the AFSCME, the mediator, and all relevant parties.”

Brady did comment more broadly on Journey’s turnover rate, saying that it’s below the national average for clinical staff but has risen in recent years, and especially in 2018, in part because of Journey’s much-criticized decision to shut down its Kasjiab House program for Hmong community members. (Other organizations stepped in to carry on the program.) That decision, and Journey’s overall financial troubles, prompted several county officials to call for an audit of the organization last fall

Whatever the numbers say about Journey’s turnover rate relative to the field as a whole, it’s clearly weighing on morale for unionized caregivers, from veterans like Bennett to relative newcomers like Thompson and Shalit. “People are really fed up with the fact that staff just come and go so fast,” Bennett says. “The, staff that [clients] have the most spilling of their guts to and opening their hearts to, those people come and go because they’re so frustrated with Journey. “

Brady attributes much of Journey’s clinical turnover to low salaries and the organization’s reliance on Medicaid dollars.

“Medicaid pays approximately 60 cents on the dollar,” Brady says. “Our low reimbursement rate results in salaries that are lower than those of organizations competing to hire qualified staff.  For example, the University of Wisconsin behavioral health programs pay about $10,000 more a year than Journey.”

This is one point where Brady and union president Bennett can agree, “I have some sympathy for the administration in that regard—that they’re trying to keep the boat afloat with some shitty reimbursement from the state, from the feds,” Bennett says. Still, from the union’s standpoint, Journey’s lower salaries make it all the more bewildering that it would hold back on better paid time off for a minority of it staff—the kind of benefit that can often sway people to take jobs they believe in, even if the pay isn’t great—and play hardball with help from a high-powered law firm.

“The longer term Journey folks have told us is that it used to be the draw was the PTO,” Shalit says. “Yeah, you’ll get paid a little bit less, but you’ll get more time to focus on your mental health, on your self care, on your ability to balance your life. And now you’re both getting paid less and having worse PTO than the hospitals.”

Union members also got wind earlier this year about a decertification petition making its way around Journey. If enough workers sign such a petition, the NLRB will hold an election in which members can vote on whether to leave the union. Valerie Landowski, an AFSCME spokesperson involved with Journey’s labor dispute, suspects Journey administrators were behind this, and thinks the effort probably failed.

“Typically when we see decertification efforts, if they have the signatures to warrant a decertification, they would have already turned them in,” Landowski says. 

Journey’s union clearly has an uphill battle as it continues contract negotiations, pushing for some wage increases and a more consistent PTO policy across the organization. The unionized workers I spoke with for this story do seem generally demoralized and worn down. But Bennett also sees Journey’s experience with unionization as a bright spot in a historically bleak period for organized labor in Wisconsin.

“During the, four-plus years that Journey fought us tooth and nail over that first contract…AFSCME got no money from us and  stuck with us,” Bennett says. “And so now we’re a union. We’re paying some dues and a bunch of those dues are paying it forward to the next Journey—mental health or McDonald’s workers or whoever needs to form a union…it feels really good to me that some of my dues go for some other group of workers that’s in the same sucky situation and they need some help fighting some fat-cat lawyers and AFSCME just does it. And just an awesome part of how this all works is that we help build other unions with our dues. “

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